September 10, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Cold War Burns on in Syria

• While Russia has provided military assistance to Syria for decades, the recent apparent increase in support is noteworthy in both its timing and future implications

• Russian military advisors and trainers are helping the Assad regime better use the Russian military equipment flying into Syria, and framing the support as part of the larger effort to fight the Islamic State and other extremist groups

• It is difficult to overstate Russian determination not to lose its influence in Syria via the Assad regime, which provides Russia with a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base that cannot be replaced elsewhere

• Already a lethal cauldron of regional proxy warfare, Syria will further deteriorate if the U.S. and Russia use both sides of the civil war as leverage against the other.


Reports that Russia has increased its already substantial military assistance to the Assad regime come at a time when the Syrian dictator is under maximum pressure on nearly all sides: by various rebel groups supported by regional and Western countries; the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra; and the so-called Islamic State. The attention now paid to the Russian support for the Assad regime shows the determination by Russia to prop up its important Middle Eastern ally, and the determination by the United States and others to hasten Assad’s downfall and blunt Russia’s influence in the region. The specter of a Moscow-backed government with a horrific record of human rights violations fighting U.S.-backed rebels with their own host of violations is not a flashback to the 1980s, but a snapshot of a worsening crisis in the heart of the Middle East.

Without Russian military support (as well as support from Iran and Hizballah), it is likely that the Assad regime would have fallen by now. As it stands, the regime is barely holding on in some key areas, including most of Damascus and the coastal Alawite stronghold of Latikia. The Russians maintain a meaningful naval presence at a leased base in Tartus, giving them a much needed presence from which to project power in the Mediterranean. This naval capability, combined with the decades-long influence Russia has maintained in Syria (and as a result, some form of regional influence and intelligence collection capability) makes it difficult to overstate how far Russia will go to ensure that some semblance of a Russian-friendly regime remains in Syria.

As parts of Europe struggle with massive numbers of refugees, many fleeing the war in Syria—from both the Assad regime and the extremist elements opposing the regime—Russia is loudly proclaiming its support for Assad. It is framing this support as both a continuation of a decades-long partnership and as Russia’s contribution to the global fight against the Islamic State. Moscow is maneuvering to corner Washington into either acquiescing to this narrative, or be seen as tacitly supporting the Islamic State by frustrating Russian efforts to help fight the group in Syria. Efforts by the U.S. to limit Russian resupply flights to Syria by encouraging countries such as Bulgaria and Greece to refuse overflight permission have been met with Russian condemnation and warnings of further support for Assad.

The already horrific situation in Syria is now further complicated by dueling ‘train and equip’ programs: various Western and regional programs to fight the Islamic State and Assad, respectively; and a Russian-supported program to help Assad fight these very rebels. This is eerily similar to earlier conflicts such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where Moscow supported its brutal Afghan partner while the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others supported the mujahideen rebels. Likewise, fighting in Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and elsewhere fell along similar proxy lines. Particularly in the case of Afghanistan, the consequences of what seemed at the time to be just another Cold War proxy battlefield have had serious negative consequences for all involved. Syria will likely prove to be similar—or worse—in that regard, given its central location and the deteriorating situation in almost every country around it.

The public support for Assad puts Russia in a bit of a quandary in that it cannot easily walk away from the issue if it does not work out the way the Kremlin intends. The number of Russian advisors and material is not enough to roll back recent rebel gains (such as the complete loss of Idlib province), begging the question of how far will Russia go to protect its interest in Syria. As Western support for the anti-Assad rebels increases, Russia will be faced with an arms race that will only lead to escalating death tolls, suffering, and refugees—and dimmer hopes for Syria’s future.


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